in Criterion Month

Fist of Fury (1972)

I knew I wanted to watch something from Criterion’s Bruce Lee collection, His Greatest Hits, this year, so I picked Fist of Fury based on its name alone. It turns out that haphazard approach was even more reckless than I thought, since exactly which movie Fist of Fury is depends on who you ask. It turns out the first two movies Bruce Lee starred in were brought over to the our shores at the same time and that led to some accidental shenanigans. His first movie, The Big Boss, was meant to be retitled “The Chinese Connection” to capitalize on the popularity of The French Connection. Somehow that movie got switched with this one, meaning Fist of Fury was released as “The Chinese Connection” and, since I guess no one liked the title The Big Boss, that movie became Fist of Fury. This mess wasn’t cleaned up until 2005, so for a long time I could’ve been watching a totally different movie tonight. But I’m glad the original title was restored, because this is a movie about a very, very furious man and his powerful fists.

Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) is a… passionate… man who has just returned to the Jingwu School in Shanghai to marry his fiance, Yuan Li’er (Nora Miao). When he arrives, he finds out that his master, Huo Yuanjia, has died and runs to the funeral just in time to jump on top of his coffin as it is being buried. Like I said, passionate. Later, students from a Japanese dojo crash the funeral and leave an insulting sign (the movie didn’t subtitle what it says) as tribute, begging someone from Jingwu to fight them. Chen can barely hold himself back, but the most senior student, Fan Junxia (Tien Feng), manages to deescalate the situation and the troublemakers return to their dojo… Along with Chen who beats them all up with his nunchaku and then makes a couple of them eat sign. Get it? Like they’re eating their words.

So begins a war between the two schools; one Chen is only partially invested in as he goes to vent his rage against anyone who would look down upon him. Not that he isn’t justified to be pissed, in one scene he’s stopped from going into a park because of a sign that says “No Chinese and dogs allowed.” When he sees a posh Japanese person enter the garden with their dog, he has no choice but to whoop some ass. What’s worse, Chen starts to put together clues that maybe his master didn’t die of natural causes, as was previously reported. Now who do you think might have had something to do with that?

With it’s Morricone-inspired score, Fist of Fury feels more like a Spaghetti Western than you might expect. I grew up with Jackie Chan movies and video games and every time I watch a Bruce Lee movie I’m struck by how much more they resemble the latter than the former. Bruce Lee seems to always find his way into situations where he has no choice but to fight a bunch of people one at a time, like his battle through the dojo in this, or up the tower in Game of Death, or in the tournament in Enter the Dragon. Like levels of a video game. Unlike Jackie, Bruce never seems to be in over his head, he’s always far and away the coolest and toughest guy in the room. Very in line with the power fantasy of games. Most importantly, Bruce doesn’t really improvise or do anything to avoid having a conventional fight with his enemies. He just beats the shit out of them. He’s really cool. And furious. And basically a video game character before those were a thing.

Shifting back to cinema, the legacy of Chen Zhen extends far beyond Fist of Fury this movie as well. In 1976, just a few years after Bruce Lee’s death, a stuntman from this movie would step up as his successor in the sequel, New Fist of Fury. That stuntman? Jackie Chan. The series would go on through several Bruceploitation sequels until it was rebooted with a new Chen, this time played by Jet Li. He would go on to play Chen’s master, Huo Yuanjia, in Fearless, a movie I saw in theaters in 2006. Best of all, in 2010, Donnie Yen starred as Chen in a sequel where, after avenging his master’s murder, he goes on to help the Allies win WWI. It looks glorious. It just goes to show you, tough guy who wants to beat up everybody is a winning formula. Even in Criterion Month.